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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUMAN, W.: Violin Concerto / New England Triptych (Quint, Bournemouth Symphony, Serebrier)
One of the greatest American symphonists, William Schuman established an orchestral sound unmistakably his own. A master orchestrator, he could turn a simple tune (When Jesus Wept from New England Triptych) into a symphonic statement of universal appeal. His witty and imaginative orchestration of an early organ piece by Charles Ives, Variations on America, is included in this collection in order to emphasize Schuman’s great gifts for orchestral color. The ink in the score was not yet dry when Schuman attended my performances of it with Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I had great fun conducting it then (I programmed it dozens of times at Stokowski’s Teenage Concert series, in the early sixties), and enjoyed it even more recording it for the first time, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The Violin Concerto is a powerful work of great drama and intensity that makes great demands on the soloist. The Russian-born American violinist Philippe Quint, making his recording début, is an ideal choice.
By Daniel Felsenfeld
By Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press
William Schuman (1910-1992): Violin Concerto / New England Triptych
Charles Ives (1874-1954): Variations on America (orch. Schuman)
William Schuman had several successful simultaneous careers in music, as composer, educator and administrator. After teaching for ten years at Sarah Lawrence College, he became president of the Juilliard School of Music, and then the first president of the newly inaugurated Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York. Schuman was by then, according to the New York Times, probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music. Besides his full-time positions, he found the time to be director of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Educational Television network and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Born in New York, Schuman started to compose while still in high school, and was soon organizing jazz ensembles. His early interest in music was focused on popular music and jazz. He studied at Columbia University Teachers College, and took private composition lessons from Roy Harris at Juilliard. Harris was a great influence, both in Schuman's development as a composer and in his career. It was Harris who first interested Serge Koussevitzky in his student's works. In turn, Koussevitzky was one of the first conductors to perform his music. The violinist Samuel Dushkin commissioned Schuman's Violin Concerto expecting to give the first performance with Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky, however, left the orchestra the year before the premiere in 1950, and the first performance was given by Isaac Stern, and conducted by Koussevitzky's successor in Boston, Charles Munch.
Schuman's compositions include the 1939 American Festival Overture, one of his earliest successes, a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, the ballets Undertow and Night Journey, ten symphonies, four string quartets, choral works, film scores, Credendum (commissioned by the United States government) and A Free Song, which won the first Pulitzer Prize in Music.
The Violin Concerto is one of Schuman's most powerful works. Emotionally packed, it could almost be considered a symphony for violin and orchestra. Rather than "accompanying" the soloist in the classic tradition, the orchestra becomes a participant in the high drama. The work is indeed extremely theatrical, evoking powerful emotions in a highly charged romantic atmosphere. Schuman was a poet at heart. His earliest interests actually included the writing of poetry. The concerto has some of the most poetic music ever written by Schuman. The work underwent several transformations after each of the first performances. Schuman seemed unsatisfied with the form, eventually settling for the final version of two very large movements instead of the original three. The final version of the work was performed by Roman Totenberg at the Aspen Festival in Colorado in 1959.
The first movement starts bluntly, as if the theatre curtain had gone up and the stage lights went on all at once. It grabs the attention. The main motif that will link the entire work, and re-appear in many disguises, is stated at the outset by the soloist. The forward motion carries the music through the first of many dialogues between the violin and the woodwind, but suddenly it halts, a dramatic and unexpected stop. The dramatic music continues building up to a climax. It slowly dissipates, leading to a middle section, an intimate molto tranquillo of chamber music quality, a poetic, nostalgic violin line supported by tenuous strings, with comments from the solo clarinet and flute, a most romantic gesture. After the horn adds another lovely touch, the music builds up speed and momentum, with a fast section by the soloist and plucked strings, an imaginative coupling. This leads to the violin cadenza, which Schuman added after one of the early revisions (soloists wanted it), followed by a nervous rhythmic pulsation in the strings against which the soloist intones the recurrent motif, The brass takes over from the strings, with the first of several brilliant passages that contrast the lyrical solo violin against a pulsating brass rhythm. Suddenly the speed picks up, all at once, like a sudden change of scene. Broken rhythms abound, this time with most of the orchestra picking up the earlier brass accompaniment. It explodes into another big orchestral climax, leading to a brilliant conclusion.
The opening of the second movement features the solo timpani, one of Schuman's trademarks. After this very dramatic opening subsides, the solo violin takes over in a very subdued, cantabile fashion, somewhat reminiscent of the middle section of the first movement. A tiny new violin cadenza sets the drama in motion once again, leading to an unexpected fugue by the strings. This eventually leads to a most imaginative dialogue between the solo violin and the woodwinds, one of the most complicated and difficult passages in the work. The brass literally puts an end to this mayhem, and eventually takes over, with another one of the rhythmic dialogues between trombones and solo violin. After a couple of these interpolations, the solo finally starts to calm down, leading for the last time to the slow, lyrical section, reminiscent of the previous cantabile passages. Not for long. The momentum picks up rather quickly, leading to a hair-raising finale, in which the soloist becomes just one more participant.
Finally, the orchestra takes over.
New England Triptych, commissioned by Andre Kostelanetz, and first given under his direction by the Orchestra of the University of Miami, soon became one of Schuman's most popular works. He wrote the following notes for the first performances.
William Billings (1744-1800) is a major figure in the history of American music. His works capture the spirit of sinewy ruggedness, deep religiosity, and patriotic fervor that we associate with the Revolutionary period in American history. I am not alone among American composers who feel a sense of identity with Billings, which accounts for my use of his music as a departure point. These three pieces are not a "fantasy" nor "variations" on themes of Billings, but rather a fusion of styles and musical language. Billings, text for Be Glad then America includes the following lines:
Yea, the Lord will answer
And say unto his people-behold
I will send you corn and wine and oil
And ye shall be satisfied there with.
Be glad then, America,
Shout and rejoice.
Fear not O land,
Be glad and rejoice.
After a short introduction by the solo timparti, the strings develop music that suggests the "Halleluyah" heard at the end of the piece. The main section starts with trombones and trumpets in a varied setting of the words "Be Glad then, America, Shout and Rejoice." The solo timparti leads to a fugal section based on the words "And Ye Shall be Satisfied." The music gains momentum as combined themes lead to a climax, followed by a free adaptation of Billings' "Halleluyah" music and a final reference to the "Shout and Rejoice" music.
The setting of When Jesus Wept is in the form or a round. This time, Billings' music is used in its original form.
When Jesus wept the following tear
In mercy flowed beyond all bound;
When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
Seized all the guilty world around
Chester, composed by Billings as a church hymn, was subsequently adopted by the Continental Army as a marching-song. The orchestral piece derives both from the spirit of the hymn and the marching-song:
Let tyrants shake their iron rods,
And slavery lank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England's God forever reigns.
The foe comes on with haughty stride,
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their vet'rans flee before our youth,
And gen'rals yield to beardless boys.
Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut in 1874. His father George was his main music teacher and influence during his formative years. George Ives was a bandmaster with highly original musical ideas. The young Charles often played drums in his father's band and organ in one of Danbury's churches. Later on, he attended near-by Yale University in New Haven, studying composition with Horatio Parker. Upon graduation, Charles Ives moved to New York City to work as an insurance clerk and in his spare time as a church organist. At the age of 32 he founded his own insurance company, Ives & Myrick, starting a series of important innovations such as estate planning.
Early on Ives had come to realise that his music could not provide a living income, as it was too unusual and innovative, and he decided he would write music mostly for his own satisfaction. His insurance business became a great success, making him very wealthy, but he would not compromise with his music, keeping intact his ideals and originality. As a result, he remained way ahead of his time in many of the musical innovations of the twentieth century, such as polytonality, quarter-tones, stylistic mixture, and so on, but he had almost no influence on the new music of his colleagues because his works remained unpublished and unperformed for a very long time. The busiest period in Ives' life was from around 1908, when he married Harmony Twitchell, until he retired from his insurance firm and stopped composing in 1930. It is curious how and why everything stopped at once for Ives, both his business and his music. During that previous 22-year period he composed the bulk of his music and built one of the most successful insurance companies in America. For the next 24 years he lived to see his music starting to take hold with publications, performances, and even important awards. Conductors like Leonard Bemstein began to champion him. He never heard his Fourth Symphony, one of his most imaginative and original works, first performed by Leopold Stokowski and the American Symphony Orchestra in New York years after the composer's death. I remember that performance well. I was the second conductor, standing on a separate podium next to Stokowski.
It was Stokowski, during my early years as his Associate Conductor in New York, who first interested me in the music of William Schuman. Stokowski asked me to conduct the Ives-Schuman Variations on America for the Teenage Concerts we both shared at Camegie Hall. These were marvellous, memorable events. Ever since his Philadelphia days, Stokowski loved to interest young people in concert music. With the American Symphony, he organized a series during which he would conduct the opening and closing works, all short, and I would conduct the bulk of the programme. While I conducted, Stokowski would sit on a stool by the side of the podium, attentively following the proceedings. In between works he would address the students with impromptu remarks. After a few years he asked me to take over the series. The Variations on America remained a favourite and we performed it every year.
William Schuman came often to the concerts, always with his family, and sometimes he spoke to the students. William Schuman was a superb orchestrator, as his own music proves. What he was able to do with works of other American composers gives further proof of this special talent. Broadcast Music Inc. commissioned him in 1963, at the instigation of Oliver Daniel, to orchestrate Ives' Variations on America, an early (1891) organ piece. Schuman was able to capture the humour, one of Ives' special talents, and emphasize the polytonality by using different instrumental blocks for each contrasting key. While we now hear these remarkable polytonal passages without blinking an eye, it must have been startling at the time it was written, way ahead of its time. It may be open to argument whether Ives was having fun with the old national hymn known as America in the United States (and as God Save the Queen in Britain), or at the idea of “variations” as an old and silly musical form. In either case, it is an irreverent work, and Schuman captured the spirit and intention of every variable, adding a personal touch at every turn. The Variables on America was first performed by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Andre Kostelanetz.
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